America enters WWI. In East Orange, New Jersey, young women, some as young as 15, work for the U.S. Radium Corporation, painting the dials of wristwatches for the men in the trenches who need to tell time in the dark. The luminescent paint on the dials is a mixture of zinc sulfide and radium. The young women, fingers flitting over the dials, lips sharpening their brushes, earn a good wage and their hair and clothes glow with radium dust whenever they leave the factory.
Their story is all images and contradictions. A single ounce of radium is delivered by a US President encased in a lead lined box that weighs 110 pounds. Radium, hugely radioactive, hugely toxic, is a “bone-seeker”: bones of the dead leave photographic imprints.The fingers of radium scientists blacken with burns. Dental drills whine. Dying witnesses shrunk to skin and bone cannot hold up their hands to take the oath. Geiger counters still click ominously when held over gravesites. And the Radium Girls? A cartoon of the day depicts them, pretty as ever, lip pointing their brushes and painting their dials while skeletons cavort amongst them.
And when the government agencies will not listen to them, when the company discards them, what else can they possibly do?
So, while the Geiger counter clicks, think of the New Jersey dial painters who lay down their brushes, pushed back their chairs, clasped hands and decided – for likely the first time in their lives – to question, to ask and to fight.